The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan has caused a great deal of concern across the world. People are reminded of their first innings in Afghanistan. Images of destruction of Bamiyan Buddha, hijacking of the Indian airlines plane, flogging and stoning of women and similar other incidents flash before our eyes to remind us about the threat of terrorism, fundamentalism and barbarity gaining ascendency once again. Not that these things had disappeared earlier, but with the state power at their disposal, the threat assumes a far more potent and real dimension. With or without Afghanistan, the world is in any case riven with forces of religious fundamentalism, terrorism together with injustice, exploitation and oppression feeding upon the unequal and unjust power relations in the world.
There is no doubt that the fears are real and the forces represented by the Taliban need to be opposed by all those who believe in modern values of equality of women, religious freedom and a secular world outlook and so on. However, many people seem to believe that the continuing presence of the American forces in Afghanistan was necessary to keep forces like the Taliban at bay. They feel that withdrawal of the American forces has robbed Afghanistan of the possibility to emerge as a modern democratic, multi-religious state which eschews violence and terrorism.
This argument suffers from a fundamental fallacy. It is wrong to believe that a foreign force will be able to establish a state structure upholding the values of democracy and equality, opposed to fundamentalism and terrorism. President Joe Biden himself made it clear when he declared that the US did not go to Afghanistan on a ‘nation building’ exercise’ [Listen in at about 3 minutes of his statement] Indeed it is for the people of the country to develop and protect the structure of governance that suits their needs. No external agency, least of all a foreign force, can ensure this for a nation. If it tries to achieve this by force, the outcome is just the opposite, as is borne by what is happening in Afghanistan. History has no example of a benevolent imperialism that has lifted a society from barbarism and cruelty into democracy and plural coexistence, equality and freedom for its people
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta has correctly argued that ‘fundamentalism draws its motivating energy from cultivating grievance against imperial hierarchies’, presence of US and allied forces in Afghanistan provided the inspiration and justification for primordial impulses and fundamentalist logic to carve an identity and give people a sense of agency, even though distorted and dangerous.
It needs to be remembered that the Taliban was formed in early 1990s by the Afghan Mujahideen which was armed and financed by CIA and ISI to fight against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the period 1979-89. Furthermore, the dismantling of the functioning states like Iraq, Libya, Syria and several others in the name of ‘war on terror’ has created many more terrorists and fundamentalist forces than it sought to destroy.
In the midst of the fear and apprehensions for the security of the region, the issue of women’s position in Taliban ruled Afghanistan has attracted the greatest attention. Women suffered the most during the last Taliban regime as they were pushed into the status of slaves without access to education, employment and political power. However, as Tariq Ali in his analysis of the Afghan situation after US withdrawal shows, it was a fact that except for a small area in the country, the situation remained mostly unchanged in the rest of Afghanistan. Denied education, employment and political participation, they suffered even while American forces remained in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, their situation is likely to worsen even while the Taliban makes deceptive noises about giving women freedom within the ‘Sharia law’.
The status of women in the areas away from Kabul can be gauged by the proliferation of madrasas in many parts of Afghanistan. These madrasas drew women away from general education into a purely religious education, fostering a fundamentalist mindset. The Al-Jazeera documentary of 2014 brings it out sharply, as madrasas for women proliferate to propagate a version of Islam even narrower than espoused by the Taliban. One could imagine, how the situation would have worsened over the 7 years as the Taliban gained in strength across most of Afghanistan.
The governments of sovereign nations have different imperatives in continuing to maintain a working relationship with whatever government is ruling in Afghanistan. The needs of geo-politics and national interest often do not leave nations the freedom to take an ‘idealistic’ position vis-à-vis tyrants and retrograde forces. But we need to think about the responses of the people in the face of the dangerous developments in Afghanistan.
The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has given rise to two kinds of responses. On the one hand, there is a sense of revulsion at what happened in Afghanistan and its implications for the future of the country especially for women and also in terms of a push to terrorism and fundamentalism in the world. On another level, it has also given rise to Islamophobia, adding to the reactionary agenda of people who believe in fomenting hatred and enmity between religions.
In this context, the role of the moderate Muslim voices becomes crucial. There is a long history of opposition to Taliban and similar forces in the Islamic world. Scholars like Eqbal Ahmad have forcefully argued against organizations like Taliban which claim legitimacy in the name of Islam. Describing Taliban the ‘most retrograde political movement in the history of Islam’, Eqbal Ahmad had called Taliban a disease way back in 1998. He wrote, ‘Taliban are the expression of a modern disease, symptoms of a social cancer which shall destroy Muslim societies if its growth is not arrested and the disease is not eliminated. It is prone to spreading, and the Taliban will be the most deadly communicators of this cancer if they remain so organically linked to Pakistan.’
The liberal and progressive voices among Muslims need to come out strongly to emphasize that Taliban does not represent the spirit of Islam and that they are anti-Islamic. Indeed, large number of liberal and progressive people are coming out against the version of Islam represented by Taliban but this needs to be magnified and done at the institutional level by the Muslim social, cultural and political organizations. It will deny the voices of hatred and enmity, the platform to foment Islamophobia and communal propaganda in the name of opposing Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
It is heartening to note that widely respected religious personalities like the spiritual head of the Ajmer Shariif Dargah have denounced Taliban for working against the tenets of Islam and thereby maligning the religion. Such voices need to be strengthened and made visible to deny the voices of hatred and enmity an opportunity to foment Islamophobia and communal propaganda after Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Others who want a better future for Afghanistan should also draw a distinction in condemning religious fundamentalism and equating the Taliban with the thinking of Muslims all over the world. Majority of the Muslims don’t consider Taliban as the representative of Islam, and they are equally pained at what is happening in Afghanistan. They also perceive it as dangerous and harmful not only for the people of Afghanistan but for sullying the image of their religion.
Howsoever desperate and gloomy the situation in Afghanistan may look, the battle to create an Afghanistan where women enjoy equal rights in the social, political and economic spheres, where values of democracy are honoured and which does not work as a source of terrorism and fundamentalism in the region or across the globe will have to be fought by its people. Indeed, other countries must work together to isolate and force the Taliban through diplomatic and other means to accept the norms of civility within their country and in their conduct of international relations.
The struggle for such an Afghanistan may be long and arduous, but it needs to be nurtured and fought with the sweat and blood of the people of the country themselves. Indeed, all hope is not lost as one hears about protests being mounted by women, and some other forces, even though small and met with brutal force.
*Vagraj Badarayan is a freelance writer and keen observer of the social-political-cultural changes in India. He considers writing as a tool to understand the process of change better through exchange of ideas between the author and the reader.